Cricket: A new Ned Kelly... but he's no hero

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IN SEEKING an answer to the recent ugly events on the world's loveliest cricket oval, Adelaide, a reasonable starting point might be a link to Australia's blemished past. The umpire Ross Emerson has been accorded convict status for promoting a "public hanging", and Sri Lanka's captain Arjuna Ranatunga has proved to be as arrogant as Ned Kelly, the bushranger.

The horse thief Ned was a burr in the saddle of Australian society in the late 1800s but in time he became a legend, a symbol of aggressive nationalism. Ring any bells?

Ask any fair dinkum Aussie cricket fan on any street corner what he thinks of Ranatunga and you'd be wise to stick a finger in each ear. To outsiders this is merely another case of bronzed Aussies turning thin-skinned, but any fair-minded cricket fan is right to get prickly when Ranatunga regally requests a runner, not so much a last resort for a crippling injury but as a ruse to get quicker runs. Maybe it's time for runners to be of the same weight as the injured - a few pounds of lead in the jock strap of Sanath Jayasuriya just as Scobie Breasley had to carry in the Derby.

Why shouldn't fans condemn Arjuna's finger-jabbing at an umpire, his threat to lead his players from the field or his boot-scraping antics to prevent the umpire standing back to get a closer look at Murali? There was no problem about Murali running between the umpire and stumps in the Perth match on Friday. Imagine the outrage if Alec Stewart had done the same in Sri Lanka.

The pro-Arjuna placard- wavers predictably justified their hero's behaviour by promoting the defence of provocation, but that merely served to remind us that when Ian Meckiff was called for throwing by an Australian umpire in 1963 the Australian captain at that breathtaking moment, Richie Benaud, remained respectful to the spirit of the game - he took Meckiff off, not his team.

Two of cricket's knuckle-men, Ian Botham and Tony Greig, were among the hand-wringers at Adelaide who accused Emerson of playing God. "Sorry umpire, you are out of order," said Botham, sounding eye-poppingly papal. Greig tried to patent the televised sympathy card with constant references to Muralitharan as "little Murali".

Apparently each believes that, because Murali was cleared by the International Cricket Council a few years ago, it is impossible for him ever to deliver a ball with a doubtful action. But is it just Murali (and other suspect bowlers) Botham and Greig want to protect, or are they saying that umpires shouldn't call any bowler for throwing during a match? Are they supportive of a law-change that would see umpires not call suspect deliveries and instead file after-match reports?

Such a change invites a nightmare about a moment in time when a particular hat-trick decides an Ashes series and an umpire's after-match report confirms the worst: "balls four, five and six of Glenn McGrath's final over were in my opinion illegal, delivered with a bent arm that straightened at the point of delivery, and therefore were no-balls..." The point is this: what if a pure bowler, in a hot-tempered moment, makes mischief? Is anyone really suggesting he should not be immediately no-balled?

Many think the Australian Cricket Board and the ICC share the same armchair in the same time-warp, limp and crusty old male domains urgently in need of a shot of Viagra. The Australian Cricket Board were slow to open the Shane Warne- Mark Waugh bookie file but quick to place the umpires Hair and Emerson under some cricketing version of house arrest because the pair were under no optical illusions about Murali's action.

The ICC match referee Peter van der Merwe said he didn't see the lawyers coming when he sat down to grill Ranatunga over his disorderly behaviour in Adelaide. Tough guys like Botham and Greig might pronounce him naive, an honours pupil of the quaint old school that still thinks there's room in the game for a bit of decorum. But the lawyers are in every other sport, and doesn't cricket turn over a fast buck, too?

The catcalls of "chucker" echoing around Australia's cricket grounds this summer have not been the brainchild of the ultra right-wing rabble- rouser Pauline Hanson: they are a loud wake-up call from fans to the game's administrators.

Now is the time for the ICC to release the full, uncensored file on Murali, dates of doubtful deliveries, names of the umpires or match referees who reported him, names of those who sat on the review panel, what evidence was offered by whom and whether the vote to clear him was unanimous. And whether the review is ongoing.

Footnote for historians: at the adjourned ICC code of conduct hearing in Perth, three lawyers defending the Sri Lankan captain did for Arjuna Ranatunga in 1999 what Ned Kelly failed to do for himself in 1880 - Ned was suspended from a rope, Ranatunga got a suspended sentence.